Good samaritans absent from economic policy

I was brought up on the parable of the good Samaritan. It was part of a staple diet of stories from the Bible’s Old Testament which were told at school and at home to pass on important human values from parents to children.

It’s a well-known story with an important message but possibly the most interesting thing is that although this tale came from the Middle East in “biblical times”, every culture across all continents has precisely the same message told in different stories. From the ancient cultures of Asia, Europe, North and South America, Africa and Australia parables or fables were used to express community values and pass them on to following generations. Maori culture is no different and has its myths, legends and stories expressing the same age-old values.

Perhaps this is the reason there has been such huge disquiet about the stream of climbers who passed by the dying Briton, David Sharp, last week on the slopes of Mount Everest. Sharp had reached the summit and was 300 metres down on the return journey when he succumbed to the harsh conditions and lay huddled under a rock – close to death.

It was clearly a difficult situation and many reasons have been given for the fact that only some rudimentary effort was made to give assistance. We have been told he was virtually already dead; he was not as well prepared as he should have been; help was too far away; other climbers were focused on their own self-survival in torrid conditions; he would have died anyway etc

These are all reasons given why little was done but none of them constitutes an excuse. David Sharp deserved the help he was denied. If 40 people had the resources both personal and in equipment to continue 300 metres to the top of the mountain after passing him by then they had the resources to help. They didn’t.

The British climber may well have died in any case but that’s not the point. He speaks from photos as a young man who loved life and enjoyed its challenges. He may well have made serious errors of judgement in terms of his preparations but that’s human frailty. The very least that could have been done was to stay with him as he died, something which may have given some comfort to his family. It would have been nice to think that a New Zealander who had previously been rescued himself from a mountain by others who had risked their lives for him would have stayed with David Sharp to the end. Without wanting to sound like a Southern Baptist Minister – he was a brother!

It’s good to see so many people, Sir Edmond Hillary in particular, reasserting the role of the good Samaritan in our community and the values the role reflects. The same can’t be said for views from the moral graveyard which is talkback radio.

However if we look more broadly at what it means to be a good Samaritan in New Zealand today and around the world, the picture is bleak.

It’s a world where 30,000 children die of starvation and related diseases every day of the year while a single oil company makes $34 billion in profit. We stand by and watch. Most of us are disturbed but we don’t get angry or angry enough.

At its heart is a deep insecurity that most middle income people have that if we rock the economic boat and demand greater justice then we may become displaced from our relatively comfortable positions.

Instead we resort to finding reasons why it isn’t our fault and we often blame the victims in much the same way as those at fault on the mountain find reasons to blame David Sharp’s death on himself.

Here in New Zealand the poor in our community now account for a large and growing proportion of our population and we are encouraged to blame them for their plight. We easily buy the line that they are lazy, drug wracked, dirty, violent and morally weak with criminal tendencies. They don’t take the opportunities that are there and avoid jobs that are plentiful. Others have dragged themselves out of poverty so why not them? They are to blame for their own situation. It’s all nonsense of course.

It’s easier to be a good Samaritan to a climber on a mountain or to miners trapped underground or to an injured puppy but we fail to be good Samaritans regarding our economic policies which create more human victims every day.

We don’t need just good Samaritans – we need bloody-angry good Samaritans.

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Local needs should direct economies

I rarely go to the movies but I had the chance to see a stunning one last week. It was called Mardi Gras and was in the Human Rights Film Festival. Most readers won’t get the chance to see it because it won’t be available on general release. It won’t attract the crowds like Mission Impossible III or The Da Vinci Code but these others are as shallow as birdbaths by comparison.

The film shows the working conditions of Chinese workers in a bead factory. You can probably imagine the situation. The workers are young women who leave their rural poverty to live in bunk rooms in a large factory compound. They work up to 16 hours per day at 10c per hour making necklaces of colourful plastic beads. They lose pay if they don’t reach their daily quota, if they talk on the job or go to the toilet during work time. Safety standards are non existent and these young workers routinely work dangerous machinery and handle carcinogenic products with no safeguards.

Meanwhile in New Orleans revellers at the annual Mardi Gras buy big quantities of these plastic beads and then in the hedonistic atmosphere of the big parades they give women beads if they flash their breasts for the crowd. The people in New Orleans have no idea how the beads are made and where they come from and the young Chinese women have no idea how the beads are used.

The film finishes with the Chinese workers being shocked and embarrassed at photos of New Orleans revellers using the beads while the revellers themselves are shocked when they see the factory conditions on a laptop.

It’s a hugely entertaining, thought provoking film, which brings a real life context to the Green Party’s Buy New Zealand Made campaign which was in the news last week.

 

Buy New Zealand Made has an overpowering logic in so many ways. It seems to be a “no-brainer”. When we buy a New Zealand made product we help keep kiwis in relatively well paid jobs and reduce transportation costs. In this way Buy New Zealand Made also has a lower environmental impact than bringing biscuits from Australia or shoes from Italy.

Probably the greatest benefit for New Zealand is that it helps us maintain a much higher level of self-reliance in our economy. This was an important concept as I grew up when New Zealand was trying to diversify its economy away from total reliance on agricultural exports by building up our manufacturing sector.

This idea is unfashionable now and never mentioned by politicians despite the fact that every developed country has improved its standards of living by imposing tariffs on imports and protecting their industries as they develop. Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson knew better apparently and over 20 years now we have disembowelled our manufacturing sector with cheap imports – represented in one sense by the beads in the film.

And we wonder why we have a low-wage economy compared to Australia.

Labour and National are lukewarm on Buy New Zealand Made and ACT is hostile. Their answer these days is always tax cuts – no matter what the question.

On the left many are also ambivalent about the campaign. The argument goes that an employer is an employer wherever they are – in New Zealand or China. They control community resources and use employees, on as low wages as possible, as a mechanism to turn those resources into profits for the business owners. This is true in principle. It’s an economic relationship which is unjust and unsustainable in either country. However, as we work towards an alternative economy we still need our factories and our skilled workers

So Buy New Zealand Made is also a long term investment for our children and grandchildren.

It will never apply to rice or cotton which don’t grow in New Zealand but there is no reason it shouldn’t apply to biscuits and shoes and almost everything else.

It will be a campaign which is easier for middle class New Zealanders on higher incomes than for people on low incomes. It’s paradoxical that those who have lost well paid jobs making shoes here will now only be able to afford cheap imported shoes.

So what about the workers making beads in the factory in China? Will they suffer in a campaigns such as Buy New Zealand Made?  Possibly in the short term. These young women are a real delight, despite their difficult situation, but shouldn’t the Chinese economy be oriented towards producing goods that will raise living standards in China?

Like many employers who believe what they want to believe, the millionaire bead factory owner, called Roger, says the “girls” are all happy. But the “girls” have held one strike. May they organise many more…

Telecom a disastrous ripoff

Honesty on the scale provided by Telecom Chief Executive Theresa Gattung last week is as rare in business as a fair deal on broadband.

Gattung told business analysts in Sydney two months ago that Telecom has “not been straight up” with customers. She said “Think about pricing. What has every telco in the world done in the past? It’s used confusion as its chief marketing tool. And that’s fine. You could argue that that’s how all of us keep calling prices up and get those revenues, high-margin businesses, keep them going a lot longer than would have been the case. But…customers know that’s what the game has been. They know we’re not being straight up”.

This kind of cynical manipulation of the public by a multi-million dollar “golden girl” is a tragedy for us all. For 16 years we have suffered as Telecom has abused its private monopoly over our phone networks. We have been fleeced.

If we pause for a nostalgic moment we will remember that Telecom was once part of the New Zealand Post Office. At the height of the Labour government’s Rogernomics betrayal our Post Office was readied for privatisation by Johnathan Hunt who as minister separated it into three state owned enterprises – Postbank, Telecom and New Zealand Post. The first two were then sold. Postbank was bought by the ANZ bank and is now Australian owned while Telecom was sold in 1990 to an American consortium.

Before it’s purchase business leaders (who dominated the public debate) railed against the Post Office. They claimed it was a state monopoly like those of “communist Russia” and had no place in a modern economy and was a threat to democracy itself. The private sector would run it much more efficiently and provide better services at lower cost. We would all be better off. Needless to say the precise opposite has been the case. The publicly owned monopoly became a privately owned monopoly and Telecom’s legalised theft began.

In round figures the purchase price for Telecom was $4 billion and when the original American buyers sold it, the selling price was $12 billion. This capital gain of $8 billion was on top of another $12 billion they made in profit over the 10 years they owned the company. Ameritech and Bell-Atlantic (the initial American owners) were staggered at their good fortune and at the blind stupidity of our government. They nearly drowned in the trough.

Last week these same business voices from 16 years ago wailed when, after the longest 16 years in telecommunications history, a New Zealand government has finally taken some action to control Telecom.

Probably the most obscene comments came from the Shareholders Association who described the government action as “outright theft of private resources”. They were complaining this time that more than $1.5 billion was wiped from the value of Telecom’s shares by the government announcement of the end of Telecom’s private monopoly over our phone lines.

A more self-serving comment would be hard to find. It was almost as though they thought they had somehow earned this money. However it’s a safe bet that none of them have ever driven a Telecom van to install telephones and repair connections. They have never sat in a call centre on a 12 hour shift being paid the minimum wage nor installed computers to run internet connections. These were all done by working New Zealanders whose labour enables Telecom shareholders to “live high off the hog”

Why has it taken so long for the Labour government to act? A ministerial inquiry as far back as six year first recommended “unbundling the loop” but it’s been 6 long years before any action was taken.

The main reason seems to be that Telecom is by far the largest company listed on our stock exchange and holds more than 20% of the market’s capital value. Labour was worried that action against Telecom would weaken the sharemarket, reduce the incomes of shareholders and scare off investors. In other words Labour preferred to let citizens suffer instead of confronting the company.

It isn’t the last round however. There is no reason to believe that the other telecommunications companies have any better ethical standards or occupy any higher moral ground that Telecom. At the end of the day private companies are responsible to their shareholders long before they are responsible to our citizenry.

Things will only improve significantly when essential infrastructure such as our telecommunications network comes back under public ownership and the democratic control of New Zealanders.

There would be benefits all round if Theresa Gattung and Johnathan Hunt each swapped jobs and incomes for a year with our undervalued cleaners who clean their offices.

Celebrity obsession a symptom of powerlessness

Surely there is something wrong when a rock band guitarist falls out of a tree, gets a headache and it’s a leading news item for several days.

It would be nice to think this was just human interest in the welfare of a fellow human. But of course its not. The last time I got a headache there were no journalists camped outside, no headlines, no TV pictures and barely a word of sympathy from my nearest and dearest.

It has nothing to do with sympathy but everything to do with our so-called “celebrity culture”.

Tiger Woods makes an appearance in a rally car and officials and the media are fawning over him. Kate Moss snorts a line of cocaine and a minor frenzy of infotainment breaks out. Tom Cruise attends the birth of one of his children and says it’s a fantastic experience. There is nothing new here for the millions of men who have attended the birth of their own children but somehow it is elevated to prime time news and flashed around the globe.

It’s the same with our local celebrities. I won’t name any for fear of massaging over-inflated egos or giving a nasty blow to the fragile self esteem of those I leave out.

It’s hard not to mention Rodney Hide though. He normally dances to a Business Roundtable tune but this time he is apparently one of the “stars” in Dancing with the Stars. It’s cringe time. I think the people of Epsom deserve to have him as their MP.

The worst thing about celebrity culture is that it sells. What used to occupy the gossip columns of tawdry tabloids and the social pages of the Monday newspaper now finds itself frequently on the front pages and leading the news. By all accounts we buy more magazines when a celebrity is pictured on the cover, we turn up the TV volume to catch their actual words and we avidly read the gossip columns. And by all accounts interest in the private lives of the rich and famous and the local wannabes is increasing.

Are our lives really so boring or pathetic that we have to live them vicariously through the lives of others? Is our collective self image so poor we think less of our own lives and dreams than we do of the mindless trivia that fills the lives of the rich and famous?

Some 2000 years ago a Roman writer called Juvenal made the well known observation that “Only two things does he (the modern citizen) anxiously wish for – bread and circuses”

Is this true? Is “Dancing with the Stars” just our latest circus? It’s true that we delight in celebrities when they are on top but are merciless when they fall from grace. Is it just the same as the thumbs up or down given by the crowds at the colosseum to indicate if they wanted a gladiator or slave to be killed once they had been beaten? Probably. Watch out Rodney.

I’m no psychologist but it seems clear our celebrity obsession is a form of escapism. We live pressured, frenetic lives and when we have a break we take a lazy escape as voyeurs on the lives of others whom we assume live the kind of lives we wish for ourselves. Celebrity culture plays to our own insecurities and foibles.

Why more so now than earlier generations?  I think it parallels wider political and economic changes. We work longer hours now on average rates of pay which are 20% lower than they were 20 years ago. Most of us work for companies owned overseas who have no loyalty to New Zealand or New Zealanders and we in turn have only a functional loyalty to them through local managers. Increasingly we feel we are foreigners in our own country.

We didn’t vote for any of this. In fact we voted in 5 successive elections, from 1984 to 1996, for governments which promised one thing and delivered the other. The “other” was the unbridled free market which sees us not as citizens of a democratic community but as consumers and clients in the marketplace with little power to effect change in our lives.

We have been told, by politicians and the wealthy elite, until we are blue in the face that “there is no alternative” to the free-market. That’s rubbish of course.

We will emerge from celebrity culture when we gain the confidence to see that we can build a genuine democracy at all levels of our lives. With that kind of freedom kiwis will dance to our own tunes and dancing with the stars will be a bad memory from a bygone era.

May 1st – a proud history of worker struggle

Today is May Day. Few people realise its significance as International Workers Day and yet the stories behind it underpin the quality of life we enjoy – or don’t enjoy – in our day to day lives.

There will be marches in several centres and activities which include an annual gathering at the Blackball Hilton hotel on the West Coast and a community celebration in Palmerston North.

In short, May Day celebrates working people organising together to get a fairer deal for themselves and their families. Despite it having a low profile in New Zealand we have our own proud history of worker organisation and struggle for positive change.

In earlier times it was even harder to get these changes through parliament because voting was restricted to men who owned land. Working New Zealanders, both men and women, were excluded. 

So politicians took little notice of the appalling conditions of work in the latter part of the 19th century and spent even more time than they do today looking after the interests of the wealthy.

Government legislation to improve working conditions was only introduced when workers began to organise and fight for change. Coal miners and workers on the wharves – both groups doing hard, physical, dangerous work – were among the first to organise together in trade unions.

Some of our first measures to improve working conditions in New Zealand are a sharp reminder of the England described in Charles Dickens’s novels. Imagine the situation which led to New Zealand’s Factory Act of 1894 which restricted work by women and boys and girls under 16 to not more than 48 hours per week and made it unlawful to employ a person who had not passed standard four. As in other parts of the world many New Zealand families became very wealthy from the slave labour of children.

It was from this same period that May Day emerged. On May 1st 1886 80,000 workers joined together on the first ever May Day march through Chicago in support of an eight hour working day. Leading the march was Lucy Parsons, her husband Albert and their two children. Violence broke out at two marches which followed with several workers shot dead and a policeman killed. Although the person responsible for the police death was never identified, four of the march leaders, including Albert Parsons, were convicted and hanged. 

Workers in New Zealand have also faced the wrath of employers backed up by the police on many occasions. In 1912 Frederick George Evans was smashed to death by batons when police broke up a meeting of striking miners in Waihi.

Despite the critical job they have done in raising living standards across the country unions have never had a good press in New Zealand and the daily lives of workers and their families are much the poorer for it.

The constant attacks from the wealthy and powerful in business and parliament and the undermining of unions through anti-union legislation are the main reasons New Zealand has descended into a low wage economy with hundreds of thousands of families trying to make ends meet on poverty incomes.

Our social situation more closely resembles the New Zealand of the 1880’s as each year passes as so many employers treat workers as just a resource for them to use.

Earlier this year I was involved with employees at a high-profile Auckland hotel where they are paid close to the minimum wage and where the employees had accepted zero pay increases in previous years because the hotel was struggling. However this loyalty has been thrown back in their faces. The hotel is now back on its feet but despite helping the hotel minimise its losses over several years, the workers have been offered just a miserly 3% wage increase – less than the rate of inflation.

The workers are going backwards while the hotel steams forward. Its parent company in Honolulu owns 20 large hotels and is negotiating the purchase of No 21 – a luxury resort on Waikiki Beach. These workers deserve a fair go but they won’t get it unless they are well organised and active in a union.

Today is a day to remember Frederick Evans and the decent kiwi values the struggle of unions represents.

It’s also a time to remember that rust never sleeps and attempts to weaken unions and remove workers rights are always with us.  National MP Wayne Mapp’s private members bill to give employers the right to sack workers within the first three months of employment with no redress is just the latest example.